Monday, November 9, 2015

Lessons Learned as a Swim Angel

This past Sunday I volunteered for the Ironman Austin 70.3 event with the water safety group as a kayak volunteer. I've always wanted to be able to help out at an event on the water, since my background is in swimming and I was a lifeguard for 8 years. When my friend Sandra signed up, I knew it was the perfect chance to do it, since I'd be out at the race anyhow cheering her on!

I dropped my kayak off at the lake on Friday afternoon after I left work and it was secured in one of the budget trucks at the dock. The process of finding out what to do and where to be when was a bit muddy. We got general emails telling us to park at the expo race morning and what time to be at our spot, but no special instructions about how we would be able to unload boats the day of, road closures, etc. It was a little frustrating since I'd never been involved. However, I got the number for the Ironman swim captain and he was very nice and helpful, making things much easier.

I woke up at 4am and drove to Decker Lake, parking at the Expo center around 5:45. I knew from the year I did the race that taking Loyola Lane was NOT the way to go, so I went north through Manor and took Decker Lane south from 290. Easy, breezy, parked quickly and hopped on the bus. The bus driver turned out to be a man named Sam, who I know from work. He drives the truck for a food pantry my nonprofit partners with, and is a super hard worker. I made sure to tell him a big happy HI, which I don't think he was ready for before the sun was up.

It was COLD for Texas that morning! The temperature was about 50 degrees, but with the wind chill, it was icier. I threw concerns about looking cute to the wind, and wore my pink snowboarding pants, my grey Ironman jacket (with my volunteer shirt over it) and a face scarf, along with my adorable Luna Chix cycling trucker hat.
Anyone want to build a snowman?!
 I checked in with the lead volunteer, ate a free taco (yum, thanks Ironman!) and made my way to the dock. There was a large group of lifeguards and other volunteers there. We learned how to signal for help with an orange flag, a floating cushion, and a whistle- all given to us by the swim coordinator.
Team meeting
 Around 6:30 it was time to get in the water and start paddling out. I knew that turn buoys were where most people have trouble, so I made a point to get to the second turn on the far side, knowing that many of the younger volunteers there had never done an event like this themselves, so having experience out there would help.
Everyone was jealous of my pink kayak!
 I paddled out about .75 miles in really brisk wind, but since I was working so hard, at least I warmed up! I heard the guns for the male pros, and the guns for the female pros go off, so knew swmmers were coming soon. I almost volunteered to be the escort of the women's field, but wasn't sure if I could kayak as fast as the leaders could swim!

Beautiful sunrise over the lake!
 From my spot on the water, I was constantly battling the wind to stay in place. My Strava map from this endeavor is hilarious, but I'd say I did a good job. During the pro waves, I stayed on the outside, to help direct them to the shore, since the turn was really tight and a little disorienting. Once AG athletes started coming, I moved to the inside.

I did this because the sun was coming up directly in line with the turn buoy and I could tell by the body language of some swimmers that they couldn't see it. Here, I shall impart the lessons I learned while watching the swim from above.

Know the course. Really though! If you are unfamiliar with open water swimming, with triathlon swims, or just that body of water, read your athlete guide cover to cover and attend meetings! Had the 20 or so swimmers I had to redirect done that, they'd have known the ONLY time they turned was at a red buoy. Instead, they added about 300 yards to their swim by going for the next orange ones and trying to cut a huge corner off the course (not on purpose, I know, but they were sorry for it and it is an avoidable mistake!

Pay attention. Getting off course happens! I've done it at this very lake before during this race. Don't be so zoned in that you don't hear TWO kayaks whistling, yelling, and splashing with their paddles at you. If the swimmers we flagged down would have listened when we first started yelling, they'd have saved a few hundred yards of extra swimming!

My snow pants were the best choice I made all morning! Soaked!
 Know yourself. If you have not been a swimmer, have not fully trained, or think you might be scared, then take your time and be honest with what's happening while you're out there. I had about 10 people hold on to me, and the only one that scared me was the man who was gasping and saying "Ok, I might need you in a minute!" NO. That is not ok. Water safety is serious, and drowning can happen so quickly, event to adults. If you're about to be done and know you still have 600 meters to go, stop. Sure enough, not two minutes later he's 100 meter away and waving frantically for help. I paddled as fast as I could and got to him as he was trying to float on his back. He then told me he knew he was past is 1:10 limit, but thought about still going. I told him no, I was flagging a boat for him. It's my job to provide a resting spot, not follow you as a personal lifeguard so you don't die. I flagged for help and water safety was there in 30 seconds to pull him out. I told him to just keep going, do his bike and run if he wanted to, but that no race is worth not being able to come back and try again because you're dead. C'mon now!

We are here to help! Got a cramp? Feel lost? Need a sip of water? Water angels are here for you! It's OK and race legal to grab on, ask questions, or just catch your breath. The water was so choppy, and lots of people were getting more than the bargained for. I was glad to get to anyone who waved an arm at me and provide some relief.

 Don't be mean. Don't be a creeper. When a swimmer grabs a kayak, we are no longer able to paddle. This will cause us to drift in to the field and unfortunately, have to catch your head before you smack our boat because you're not sighting. I put my hands in the water and suffered very frozen fingers to keep a guy from ramming me, and all I got in return was, "Are you f*&%^ng kidding me?!" from him. Hey dude, not my fault you're not paying attention. Secondly, I know it's a high intensity situation and you're tired if you're grabbing me for a rest, but when I'm bundled, soaked, freezing, and making sure no one is drowning, that is not the time to tell me I'm, "really pretty." I laughed, not really because it was that funny, because for real, wtf, but because it was the absolute last thing I expected to hear at that time. Save it, charmers, for when you're wearing more clothes!

Every single other person was nothing but normal and nice, though, and I got many thank-yous, which was very sweet.

Don't waste time. Time limits are there for safety and for logistics. If you stop for a break, don't waste time debating with me if you have time enough to finish. If you've got the energy and feel safe, just get going! I watched a guy to the shore who missed his cut-off by 20 seconds. He'd have made it if he would have just kept going instead of trying to get me to talk him out of it!

It was overall a very fun morning! My TomTom said I was on the water for 3 hours, paddling about 2.5 miles total. I got to see both of my girlfriends out there swimming. They could spot me since I was the only pink boat, so it was fun to cheer them on from the water. I got a great workout and had fun getting back to my old water rescue days, and would love to help out again next year, now that I know how it works.

My view from the back, holding down the hatch so we didn't lose my kayak!

After the last swimmer, I was standing at the dock drying off and warming up, and got to talking to my new friend Glenn, who had paddle boarded in front of the men's pro field. I told him about my logistical troubles and that I was parked at the expo center and he told me he'd give me and my boat a ride! (And told me next year to just ignore instructions and park at the boat ramp with the rest of those bringing their own)

Turns out Glenn had also raced at IM Texas, so we talked about that as we took the long way around to the Expo center. I felt like a dork, because I had no idea where my car was, so while he went and got a free lunch from the volunteer stand, I wandered the parking lot until my clicker made my car beep. It was so nice of him to let me load my dirty boat in his car, not even knowing me! He said that's just what we do for fellow triathletes, and he's right. This is such a great community to be involved in.

I got loaded up and dried off in time to get a great spot to see Sandra come in off the bike. I was mad when I finally saw her and flipped on my camera, only to have it on the selfie setting by mistake, so I only got her from behind. But check out that cute SOAS kit- look familiar?! :)
 I RAN from the bike In all the way around to the Run Out and caught her coming out there as well, giving her a high five. She swan a 47:00min swim, and biked a 3:15- very, very similar to what I had done at my first. She's an amazing athlete and a much better runner than me, so I knew she was lining up to crush her goal of under 7 hours.
High Five!

As she ran down the road, I ran back to my car and grabbed my mountain bike and pedaled hard along the course. I found her as she came back out of the park and rode along with her to back to the expo center. I wasn't pacing or coaching her (she didn't need it!) and was just there for moral support. I did this for her first and second lap, then during her third, put my bike up and used my volunteer shirt to get a great spot on the expo floor. I waited about 45 minutes and was so pumped when I saw her coming down the chute. I took like 5 pictures and my worthless phone DIDN'T SAVE ANY OF THEM! I was so, so mad!!!

She finished in an amazing 6:45 minutes, crushing it like I knew she would! I'm so proud of her, and can't wait to race (and likely get beaten by her!) at Boulder in August! Before then, we are re-uniting the Blistered Sisters and racing the RAAM Texas Challenge 400 mile course as a 2-person relay. I think we can do it in under 24 hours. :)

Great job, babe! You're amazing and I'm so proud of you! (You too, Lauren, for battling it out through your injury! You can thank my magic high five for any extra power boots you got!)

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